Riverland students sound off on high education costsPublished 7:09am Sunday, April 15, 2012
AUSTIN — Students and families are bearing too much of the rising costs of college.
That’s the message Riverland Community College students and higher education students statewide are sending to Larry Pogemiller.
“Our tax-dollar commitment to education is being replaced by family debt,” Pogemiller, the director of Minnesota’s Office of Higher Education said.
Pogemiller met with Riverland students, staff, and State Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, Thursday afternoon to discuss financial aid issues, one of a series of college visits he has held around the state.
Pogemiller said about 70 to 75 percent of jobs will need some sort of postsecondary certification, such as a four-year degree or jobs license, by 2020.
Numerous studies have come out in recent years highlighting the difficulties students have with financial aid, and tuition costs nationwide have dramatically increased over the past 20 years. Riverland’s tuition more than doubled from 1999 to 2011, as Riverland students paid about $65 per credit in 1999 compared to about $159 a credit this year.
Riverland has stepped up its efforts to prevent costs from affecting tuition rates. Riverland officials cut 14 jobs out of more than 600 this year to stem a $1 million slash from the state, about 10 percent of Riverland’s state aid. In 2010, they cut nine positions, including a dean of students and three receptionists, to save about $800,000.
“One of the things that Riverland has been very concerned about is the rising debt load that students are having to bear as the cost of higher education keeps increasing,” said Riverland President Terry Leas.
Though students were largely positive about their Riverland experience, several shared their views on financial aid with Riverland officials and Pogemiller. All six students present want to go on to four-year colleges, universities, and other education opportunities. Several said they are willing, albeit grudgingly, to accept the $20,000 to $30,000 in debt that Minnesota students on average incur paying for college.
“I know I’ll have to take out a lot of loans going to Wisconsin,” said Christina Schmidt. Schmidt will enroll in the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse to pursue a mathematics-related degree, and in part because she has relatives there, her boyfriend will also attend La Crosse and her sister is attending a private college in the area.
“She’ll probably be up to $60,000 or $70,000,” Schmidt said. “I know I won’t at least be that bad. That kind of reassures me because I’ll just be at like $30,000.”
Pogemiller said he’s heard similar stories from students of all walks of life across the state: Students say they’re willing to go into debt but they’re fearful of paying it back after they graduate.
“We’re putting young people at risk now … when they enter the job market,” Pogemiller said. “They’re entering with large debt loads that are going to take years to pay off, and that’s going to start affecting the choices they make when it comes to higher education.”
For students like Eli Riley, getting the chance to discuss financial aid and other college issues with state officials is a welcome opportunity. Riley has all of his Riverland tuition taken care of by financial aid, and his older brother and mother also attend the school.
“It would be wonderful to see something from this meeting come to life,” he said.
Yet affordable college tuition and less dependency on financial aid will probably have to come from Minnesotans, as Pogemiller said part of the reason he is touring the state is to unify higher education officials’ voice to convince taxpayers they need to help fund public higher education, while at the same time keeping education officials fiscally accountable.
“We know that we’re going to have to convince Minnesotans to financially support higher education more,” Pogemiller said. “There’s been a disinvestment in the last decade that we just have to turn that around.”
That may take some time, as Poppe said it’s unlikely the state Legislature will raise higher education funding in the near future. Yet Poppe encouraged more students and families to let their elected officials know they want more higher education funding.
“The more [students] that are heard, maybe we can do something about it,” Poppe said.